Responses to some objections


Contr’un Revisited: Honestly, some of this post has a real Twilight Zone feel to it for me. Consider it evidence of my brief Carsonian period. For me, it also marks an important tension in my own work. Obviously, there was a time when I was content speaking a political language that was very Tuckerite. I get a lot of guff these days for slighting poor old Benjamin R. Tucker, usually from people who have no idea how many hours I spent putting together the first online pdf set of Liberty. And I’ll grant that the various, seemingly endless struggles for the soul of mutualism—still driven, as often as not, by non-mutualists—have forced me to draw sharper lines between the various mutualisms than I once did. But it’s not hard at all for me to imagine, in a political milieu with different limitation and obsessions, pursuing the sort of rhetorical line you see here. 

One of the things that drew me to the Alliance of the Libertarian Left in those days was the belief, help by at least some of the members, that something like a common language—or at least a limitation of the purely semantic obstacles to communication—was possible. I still believe in that possibility, but I have no illusions left about the difficulties. I would be inclined to agree with the Proudhon of The Philosophy of Progress, who said “it is not my place to create new words for new things and I am forced to speak the same language as everyone,” but I am ultimately more inclined to think of the notion of a shared language as something of an illusion. Looking back at posts like this, written quite consciously in the language of “market anarchism,” for audiences that could be assumed to be resistance to some portion of that hybrid concept, I’m pleased enough with the results. But the satisfaction is roughly the same looking at the writings of a slightly later date, which are brimful of playful neologisms. 

Where this work feels unfinished is the degree to which it not only adopts the language but also the analysis of the Tuckerite anti-monopolist current. In an attempt to provide some shareable material I undoubtedly pushed some of my own concerns to the margins. And that is ultimately why the work remained unfinished, Left-Liberty lasted only two issues and I eventually found myself in a sort of self-imposed exile from market-anarchist circles. This is probably the sort of overcompensation that is inevitable when you are first trying to bridge the gap between early anarchist thought and contemporary discourse. But it is the sort of thing that would have to be corrected if I was to return to this text (as perhaps I will.)

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Responses to some Objections,

Raised by Part I of

“Mutualism: the Anarchism of Approximations”

Part I.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but I have been surprised by the vehement responses to the first part of my mutualist series, particularly when it was posted at I had really intended this work as a more-or-less internal communication, or provocation, to self-proclaimed mutualists, our allies in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and Agorist Action Alliance, and those other anarchists and fellow-travellers who ordinarily frequent my blog. I welcome the wider audience, but the changed circumstances suggest that maybe it would be worth pushing ahead on a few questions, rather than continuing at my usual leisurely pace.

RECIPROCITY AND JUSTICE: As Kevin Carson remarked in the comment thread here, the most central value of mutualism has probably been Reciprocity (mutuality, mutualité). Reciprocity is frequently invoked as a standard for justice. Certainly, for Proudhon, the two concepts were bound together at the heart of his social philosophy. I raised this issue, in part, to correct an impression (made on friend and foe alike, apparently) that I was placing issues of economics (narrowly defined) at center-stage. At Infoshop, one commentator responded, “To equate justice with reciprocity is petty; no wonder you concentrate so much on accounting.” And that’s weird, since I haven’t said much of anything about “accounting.” But I guess it’s easy to imagine that market anarchists will all be sticklers for “getting theirs,” or for following precisely the cost-principle, like Josiah Warren making contracts with his kid and timing his service at the Time Store. But, arguably, that sort of obsession with balancing the books is not reciprocity, in the sense of regard for others, but a kind of self-absorption. The standard model of reciprocity is the Golden Rule, and it is likely that the application of the kind of consistent individualization promoted by Warren, Proudhon and others might actually lead to a more demanding standard than the simple “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Take seriously the notion that every individual really is unique, and it’s hard to stop at “what would I like” and pretend that that is an adequate standard for justice. One of the basic antinomies of mutualism is individual-community, and one of its goals is to avoid the reductive forms of either individualism or communism. Mutualists get to association by way of radical individualization, careful attention to the singular nature of individuals, and their traditional objection to “communism” was less an objection to property in common than to the assumption of common interests prior to that sort of individualization. As anarchist communists are also concerned with giving freedom to individuals recognized as unique, there is actually plenty of room for agreement here. If “communists,” “individualists,” and those, like mutualists, who want some from both columns, would all acknowledge that some form of balance is required here, we might save some truly unnecessary conflicts.

The central concern with both reciprocity and respect for individuality mean that mutualists, if they are to stick to their principles, can’t simply stop at the ledger book or, possibly, even at some less demanding understandings of the Golden Rule.

CAPITALISM AND COMMERCE: One of the reasons we don’t all get along better is the sharp divide over market economics in anarchism. Mutualists agree with other anarchists that there are a lot of things wrong with the markets that most of us much participate in and most of us are happy to call the current arrangement “capitalism.” Mutualists oppose all forms of economic injustice and exploitation. But we believe that injustice in the market comes from force, fraud, and privilege. We make a distinction between capitalism, a form of market economics characterized by state intervention on behalf of a particular class of economic actors—those who hold socially significant accumulations of real property—and against the rest of us. Most of the ills that face most of us under present economic conditions come out of our unequal bargaining power under capitalism. Even organized labor has largely found itself unable to hold its position, with the deck so clearly and systematically stacked against it. Mutualism’s critique of capitalist markets has been pretty comprehensive: Proudhon, of course, exposed the incoherence and injustice of existing notions of “property” and called for a transformation of property relations that would eventually bring a near-equality in that realm. Early mutualists were among those who emphasized the social nature of all production and set the stage for a thorough rethinking of distribution and remuneration—a work that remains, unfortunately, largely undone. They uncoupled cooperation from combination, and began to work out a plan for associated labor based in individual enterprises, brought together in voluntary federations. They opposed profit, rent, and interest (essentially any compensation outside of that due to labor and risk) as usury. They emphasized the convergence of cost and price as a logical outcome of equal exchange and practiced it as a practical measure for instituting “equitable commerce.” The “free market anti-capitalism” of today’s mutualists is simply the extension of those critiques.” Given all of that, it’s always a bit shocking when mutualists are accused of proposing nothing but an improved capitalism. But the criticism invariably comes from those who believe either that exchange of any sort is un-anarchistic, because it involves separate property and some form of quid pro quo “accounting,” or those who object to some specific element—currency, competition, division of labor, the commodity form, etc.

Mutualists believe that it is privilege, and the inequities of commerce that grow from it, that is the problem, not commerce itself. And we tend, following early examples in Warren and others, to define terms like “commerce” and “markets” fairly broadly. Particularly when the discussion is of “markets,” this can cause misunderstanding. But, honestly, in the years since the 1860s, when Proudhon directed attention to all the various specific things veiled by the term “property,” (or since Stirner’s discussion of “spooks”) there has been plenty said about the dangers of fixating on terminology, rather than proposals and practices. With so much having been written recently about the varied meanings within anarchist discourse of terms like “capitalism” and “socialism,” much of the misunderstanding we face seems rather wilful. That said, it seems to me that “market anarchism” is an accurate description of one aspect of mutualism. Equitable commerce, with “commerce” taken in its broader meaning, is better. However, mutualism or mutualist anarchism is thoroughly to the point.

DIVISION OF LABOR: One of my Infoshop commentators was rather insistent that “division of labor” had to include hierarchical command structures, instutitionalization of roles, exploitation and the like. None of that seems to me to be inherent in the division of labor, as such, which, as mutualists have recognized right along, has generally been a means of amplifying individual labor—even if laborers have yet to enjoy the full fruits of that amplification. Starting with Proudhon’s initial analysis in the 1846 “Economic Contradictions,” mutualists have hardly whitewashed the capitalist implementation of the division of labor, but, again, it’s really a question of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The development of specialization, the adoption of voluntary structures of instruction and direction, and the development of complex forms of self-management are going to be necessary for anarchists not content to settle for cottage industry. Is there a risk of introducing un-anarchist elements in any large-scale organization. Yup, I reckon there is. Is this any less true of large-scale organizations which reject explicit contracts. Hmmm. I’m not sure it is. Anarchists of any stripe will presumably have to work to achieve and maintain anarchy. We are not utopians, with foolproof, lasting blueprints.

[That’s all I have time for today. Coming up: responses on property, cops and courts, currency, and more of the usual on the Anarcho-Word Police.]


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.